• The best of the worst and permanently bad. Life-long prisoners

Research Project Objectives

This is another stage of the research carried out between 2014 and 2017 (DEC-2013/09/B/HS5/04518). The research enabled collecting extensive research material concerning 300 convicts sentenced to life imprisonment, which was generated and gathered at various stages of administrations of justice and the life of prisoners over the period of nearly 25 years. The material was analysed in line with the objectives, hypothesis, and outcomes assumed in the previous studies.

In course of material analysis, we noted, however, many new aspects and issues connected with the diagnosis and assessment of murderers and their aggravated crimes, and then with the imposition of indefinite imprisonment, execution thereof, assessment of risks and needs of life prisoners, interventions and effectiveness thereof (Coyle, Management).

The previous studies provided evidence in support of internal differentiation of the said group of convicts – they demonstrate different adaptation strategies, approaches to their penalty and life in prison. In order to describe these strategies, approaches, behaviours, socialisation stages (rehabilitation) and objectives achieved by convicts, the research needs to be continued not only as a case study, but also by showing certain regularities and a collective picture of life prisoners (statistical analysis). We have carried out a qualitative analysis of 300 cases in the directions indicated in the application. We have started working on data coding to show the statistical picture of both aggravated murderers and life prisoners.

Therefore, the objectives of the continued study are refined, focusing on the original research problems identified in the previous studies.

The transition to the next stage of research results from the need to: • systematise the qualitative knowledge we have gathered; • explore new research problems – aspects of the researched reality by isolating strictly and narrowly defined issues and research material; • decode and clarify specific terms, procedures and established practices of justice (experts, courts, and prison staff).

The main scientific objective is to investigate how perpetrators of murders, often notorious and unresponsive offenders, are handled at two levels of justice – which determine their further attitudes and behaviour, threat to the public or progress in rehabilitation, namely (1) at the stage of assessment by court experts of not only their sanity, but the type of perpetrator and person they are during criminal proceedings (standard validity in the light of modern psychology – criteria, content, methods); (2) at the stage of the execution of an extremely long punishment, which is extended sentence, varied, i.e. covering various aspects and stages of their lives and responses of the prison system, costly and still unexplored.

The main research problem is both the content and justification of the response of justice (the court and the prison) to aggravated murderers sentenced to life imprisonment, as well as the response of the latter, that is, whether and how they accept the knowledge about themselves, their guilt and deficits, the reasons why they have to spend the rest of their life in prison, and also how they adapt to the conditions of long-term isolation, what or who helps or hinders them in it, what or who is on their way to improving, progressing within the prison system, and ultimately being conditionally released (T. Ward, T. A. Gannon; Report Best Practice Strategies and Programmes).

Detailed purposes of research:

  • analysis of the process and the effects of the diagnosis and assessment by court experts of 100 murderers sentenced to life imprisonment, and consequently the development of the standard of assessment in criminal cases;
  • analysis of the manners and methods, and justification therefore, for the imposition and execution of life imprisonment, namely the specific policy of individual prisons or prison districts, and then synthesis (determination of regularities, if any); we wish to look into the psychological diagnosis at the stage of execution of life imprisonment – whether it answers the basic questions important in terms of the execution of the penalty and attainment of its rehabilitative goal and protective function: about human personality, its reform ability, risk factors and potentials; whether assessment of life prisoners during a quarter of a century when they serve their penalty may help predict their future behaviour, both in the lighter prison and when they are free; whether it provides the basis for assessing the risk of the convicted person, while developing rehabilitative, corrective, planned effects interventions;
  • analysis and description of the tools and programs implemented by prison staff to rehabilitate and socialise a life prisoner (e.g. diagnosis of prisoner risks and needs, development of the sentence//punishment plan, forecasting conduct in case of changes in living conditions – type of centre or release, and ultimately conditional release), and then synthesis (determination of certain regularities, identification of the strengths and weaknesses of the prison system) and formulation of the conclusions;
  • description of the interventions (prison offer – from living conditions to knowledge-based awareness of the problem) and their effectiveness in the light of contemporary comparative legal solutions and the practices in few selected countries of the Council of Europe;
  • identification of various strategies, processes and effects of socialisation of life prisoners, or on the contrary – deepening their association (conditions and supporting/weakening factors).

Research hypothesis

We assume that:

  • There is no one standard of diagnosing offenders and making assessments in criminal matters which gives rise to certain arbitrariness of expert methods, tools, findings and conclusions in issues of importance for the defendant, justice and development of expertise. Although the practice of assessment is based on psychological and medical knowledge, it does not draw from it in a systematic and accurate way, thus it does not contribute to the development of knowledge about the offender and his/her personality. Expert opinions do not answer the question of why a particular person has committed a particular act in given circumstances.


  • The diagnosis of the long-term convicts, made at the beginning of the punishment, is not verified or updated. Consequently, the convict’s personality and motivation, which may change over time, are not recognised. The importance of the lapse of time and the variability of the different factors, including the personal characteristics of the convict (his/her personality) is highlighted by domestic and international courts.
  • The systemic offer – the offer of interventions in prison, although limited, contributes to the orderliness of life, habits and behaviour of convicts. However, there is no approach and the RNR model described above, there is no planned, systemic execution of the penalty: appropriate programs addressed at life and long-term prisoners based on What Works?, stages of the penalty and criteria for transition from one stage to another. There is no separate model program of work with life prisoners, in particular, there is no work on the cause of life (long-term) imprisonment – that is on the committed crime, the guilt and the harm inflicted to the victims (Reducing Reoffending).
  • Life prisoners are a diverse group in terms of needs, motivations, ways of adapting to the conditions of prison isolation, degree of threat to safety, susceptibility to interventions and rehabilitative programs, as well as relationships maintained or established during the imprisonment, influence of close or “significant” persons. All these elements of their life and autonomy – consumed by the prison system – have an impact on their socialisation (achieving certain social, emotional, axiological maturity). The prison staff do not, however, have a tool that identifies these elements, assessing them and helping to draw conclusions on the progress of social rehabilitation.
  • We assume that the life prisoners, on the one hand, can see their homogeneity – belonging to a uniform group (their categorisation and diversification as a group) – weak and strong effects thereof; on the other hand, they perceive their individuality, learn from it, attempts to develop and realise it. Each of them is a separate case study which requires professional knowledge to be understood, while at the same time to identify or confirm the factors or procedures appropriate for a given case and the purpose of the penalty imprisonment. Therefore, certain regularities will appear within the examined 300-person group – what is an effective method / programs / work factors and why (due to what).
  • Life prisoners when adapting to prison conditions (in isolation, discipline, limited freedom of movement, disposing of goods and freedoms, limited access to goods, subordinated), who – for various reasons – form a special category, want to secure for themselves a minimum of autonomy and to achieve this, most of them, learn or apply social skills. Prisonization, namely the said adaptation, is unintended, necessary to meet the basic human needs. It is neither “wrong” nor harmful, but an indispensable human response to his/her living conditions.
  • The lapse of time has a variety of meanings – there is no study of its effect on the convict’s personality, on his/her approach to crime, guilt and punishment, on his/her behaviour and acquired habits. Some factors – decisive for the degree of punishment, the degree of risk of the convict, his/her susceptibility to intervention and the shaping of attitudes of responsibility and respect for each person’s life – remain unchanged during the punishment, despite the lapse of time and actions taken by the convict and the prison staff. Other factors change over time, due to changes of the convict, durability and strength of interventions which affect him/her. The lapse of time and the changes which occur in the meantime are of insignificant importance for the stages of indefinite imprisonment – the decisions and assessment criteria applied to prisoners.


Significance of the project

The research is innovative in terms of the research problem, the examined group of perpetrators sentenced to life imprisonment, and the methodology which takes into account the complexity and wealth of qualitative data on the history of derailment and development of murderers (extremely violent offences), and subsequently the life story of life prisoners and their close ones who assist them as well as the prison staff.

As continuation of the research carried out between 2014-2017 (subsequent stage thereof), the research provides a unique opportunity to learn about the purpose and content of execution of life imprisonment over the period of nearly 20 years of application thereof to a special and internally diversified group of convicts. It will provide an in-depth and systematic knowledge of the ever-growing, important group of prisoners and their punishment. The research results will, therefore, be relevant to the development of criminology and other social sciences and law (they will provide the basis for the development of postulates for changes or recommendations, tools and methods for assessing and working with the category of prisoners sentenced to life or extremely long punishments).

The results of the research will provide substantive, empirically substantiated, analyses and arguments in the scientific and public debate on the practice of the implementation of life imprisonment and the policy of long-term penalties.  By defining practical goals (developing standards of opinion, methods and tools for working with life or long-term prisoners), research will help to improve the practice of execution of extremely long imprisonment. It will offer an opportunity to test and apply the methods and tools used in Western European countries, which are considered to be a good model of penitentiary influence and the functioning of the prison system.

Work plan

The conception of research is based on qualitative research given the research of statistical methods (including sample size) and qualitative methods.

The conception is focusing in the rich and multi-layered research material on two purposes and aspects of reality – of the participation and the role of experts in the judiciary in criminal matters of the heaviest quality and contents and meanings of a life or long-term penalty of imprisonment (of interaction between the prison system and convicted, family, society participating in the execution of a punishment).

As part of examinations we are planning: to create the base of the publication, researchers and the keywords concerning the life imprisonment and the mini dictionary of examinations, to gather empirical material from court records and prison, as well as in the course of the field research (of interviews with prisoners, prison officers, with the other interested parties).

We plan to encode the quality data base in SPSS and quantitative elaboration of the research material for statistical analysis of the data collected (calculations of correlation).

Within qualitative research, we are planning case studies that we will not only analyse and describe, but also to discuss them during the scientific seminars with the participation of practitioners and in teaching and working with students.

We are also planning qualitative elaboration of the research material (analysis and synthesis, hypothesis testing), concerning:

  • the examination of persons who have committed crimes within criminal cases;
  • the treatment with the perpetrators of the murders, whose sentence depends on a correct diagnosis and prognosis, the treatment with them during the time of punishment (a quarter century), the policy or practices of the particular prison, the capabilities and resources of the prison system also in a comparative perspective.

In the concept study we have taken into account the evaluation of the research process and the research methodology and used in our research tools.

The culmination of research and in order to popularize their results, there will be writing the publication about monographic character and the international conference.

Research Methodology

We will use various research methods and techniques in course of the research. Although we refine our research objectives and areas, we will use a spectrum of methods – suitable for qualitative research: qualitative analysis of literature and judicial and prison documents, statistical methods, partially standardized interviews, content analysis, field studies and quantitative analysis (in order to obtain a statistical picture of the studied phenomena, regularities, group).

The research consists of seven stages:

Stage I – reading the literature, including foreign literature, and creation of a database of publications, researchers, keywords, research glossary, concerning:

– assessment (diagnoses and forecasts) of perpetrators of murder or violent offences;

– life imprisonment and long-term penalties (case law, standards, reports, foreign research results);

– plans, programs and interventions in long-term prisons, models and programs combining cognitive and behavioural approaches based on the What Works? methodology).

Stage II – analysis of court experts’ opinions (for the last 10 years or 100 murderers) and prison records of prisoners convicted to life imprisonment according to the survey prepared to examine documents, i.e. expert opinions and prison records.

Stage III – summary of the first two stages; verification of the hypotheses and objectives; description of findings – analysis and synthesis.

Stage IV – field research at penal institutions where life prisoners are kept: 50 free (partially standardised) interviews with life prisoners and prison officers who execute the punishment (educators, psychologists, ward guards) and its managers (directors and managers).

Stage V – case studies of life prisoners, including the length or stage of the punishment, demonstrated activity, use of the prison offer and restrictions thereon due to the prison sentence, the degree of socialisation, prognostic factors favouring social rehabilitation and (protection) and those which are unfavourable.

Stage VI – quantitative analysis of coded data using the SPSS database.

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